Roots to Branches: Tips for Growing a Festival Community

Kids and parents hula hooping.

Hooping workshop at Watermelon Park Festival, photo by Tara Ward

How can you create such loyalty to an annual event that folks will trek many miles through melting sun and pouring rain just to be there? What makes them want to schedule it in their vacation plans, returning every year and bringing more friends? For music festivals, great entertainment is the focus, but it’s the festival community that generates such a powerful draw of participants. As I prepare to head out to one of my favorites – Watermelon Park Festival in Berryville, VA – I’m thinking  about some of the things that turn a music festival into a community.

A Special Place

FloydFest Dreaming Creek Stage

The Dreaming Creek Stage at FloydFest, photo by Tara Ward

Memorable scenery is a powerful element in attracting a return trip to your event. Watermelon Park is on the banks of a slow stretch of the Shenandoah River. Another favorite, Delfest in Cumberland, MD, has the backdrop of the Potomac River’s cake-layered cliff side. In southwestern VA, FloydFest has built beautiful wood beam stages amid the rolling landscape. The location is the backdrop for all of the great memories for you fans.

Volunteer Power

Most of the festivals I have been to have a volunteer program where you can get your ticket in exchange for some hours of service, such as at the gates, parking, trash and recycling. While this is often a great deal for students, I think that the majority of volunteers do it for the experience of community, making friends and helping the festival they love. Most festivals simply could not succeed without a good volunteer program

Make Participation Happen

Two fiddlers and a banjo uke.

Veteran jammers at Watermelon Park Festival, photo by Tara Ward

It’s not enough just to encourage participation at your event. For it to really succeed, you need to reach out and make it happen. Two years ago I noticed that while there were great jamming workshops at Watermelon Park, they were a bit fast for new players. Using the philosophy of my mentor Dr. Banjo, I knew that a lot of beginning players just need one good experience jamming with others in order to get rolling and joining in other jams. I asked the organizers if they would sponsor my idea, they liked it, and the Bluegrass Slow Jam was born. I lead the group in standard tunes at a moderate pace and make a lot of new friends in the process. The first year it drew over 30 pickers and it has been growing ever since.

Access to the Professionals

Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury and Mike Ward

A moment I will never forget - jamming with Del and Ronnie McCoury at the first Delfest Academy, photo by Tara Ward

At roots music festivals, there are often no barriers between the artists and fans. The band will often invite folks to “shake and howdy” at the merch table, and while sure they would love to sell you a CD and get your email on their mailing list, they are also open to your questions and comments, signing your CD’s or maybe a picture. I’ve seen huge lines of fans at Rhonda Vincent’s tour bus, and she stays to see each one of them personally. Many festivals schedule events on smaller side stages, such as Q&A mixed with an intimate performance. Some like Delfest Academy and Rockygrass go so far as to organize pre-festival classes with the pros (separate ticket). While the bands usually need to get right back on the road, it’s also not uncommon to find them picking around a friend’s campfire later that night.

These are some of the things that have made music festivals so special to me – how about you? Are there things you could add to my list? How about other types of festivals – what special things have you seen that make a festival into a community?


About Mike Ward

Connecting the digital to the local - website management, social media and event promotion.
This entry was posted in community building, music. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Roots to Branches: Tips for Growing a Festival Community

  1. Lanea says:

    One of the best ways to keep that astounding volunteer spirit up is to truly thank your volunteers. One of my favorite things about PCF was organizing the volunteer party every year after the festival. Making folks feel truly appreciated keeps them coming back.

  2. Great advice for community organizes of all stripes. I have had my attempts when I was a late teen. Now I am 22, and not so active with my community. I will definitely be crossing that path again at some point in my life. Right now I gotta take care of myself though.

    • Mike Ward says:

      Thanks for commenting, Steven. Definitely look to yourself first – there is no community without you. Maybe you can’t be at every event, fundraiser and party but passing the word to others who may be able to is still a great service.

  3. Julie Kerby says:

    You cut right to the heart of that watermelon. I’m glad that you see and understand all that goes into building that feeling of community at a festival. It really takes a lot of hard work and love to create something like this, but the festival organizers cannot do it without all the people who step up to add bits of magic. Thanks to you and Tara for adding magic to Watermelon Park Fest for the last several years. I will look forward to seeing the other responses so we can continue to improve and have “the best fest yet” every year.

    • Mike Ward says:

      Thanks for writing, Julie. It’s been a joy to watch the festival grow. Now the field is packed with campers and pickers – groups of families and friends who return year after year. Joseph from Bijou Creole said they made a lot of friends last year and they keep up with text and email. Looking forward to next year already – bring on the triumphant return of Furnace Mountain Band!

  4. right on! All great advice, I’ll keep it all in mind as it is a goal of mine to throw a small music festival.

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